Who Owns Whom? Social Media’s Corporate Roots

From Howard Dean to Barack Obama, Ron Paul and Hillary Clinton, online social networking has become a treasure trove of connectivity, cash and exposure. But who’s buying whom? Whether it’s MySpace‘s cozy relationship with Fox News, Facebook’s privacy invasions or LinkedIn’s reported quest for corporate funding, the brave new world of online friendship has become, like its real-time partner in the offline world, a tangled web of competing loyalties.

And, as usual, it’s consumers, particularly youth, who are caught in the middle.

Take MySpace for example, which started out as an improvement over Friendster, a similar social networking site of the early 2000s that was too clunky to survive its leaner, meaner counterpart. After spending a few years as a property of eUniverse and its founder Brad Greenspan, MySpace was sold in 2005 for $580 million to Rupert Murdoch and News Corp., the tabloid empire behind such right-wing phenomena as Fox News, the New York Postand the Weekly Standard, and the third-largest media conglomerate in the world. The buyout placed MySpace, the home of 200 million users, firmly in the grasp of Fox Interactive Media, which also counts entertainment aggregate IGN and Beliefnet, the largest online faith and spirituality network, among its many holdings.

“MySpace.com [is one] of the Web’s hottest properties and resonate[s] with the same audiences that are most attracted to Fox’s news, sports and entertainment offerings,” Murdoch wrote in a press release after the takeover. “We see a great opportunity to combine the popularity of … MySpace with our existing online assets.”

While Murdoch’s myriad assets aren’t all steeped in propaganda, some of them are, including Fox News which, unlike most other news organizations, makes you dumber the more you watch it. Columbia University’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found in May 2007 that of the three major cable networks, including MSNBC, CNN and Fox News, only the latter spent as much or more time on the Anna Nicole Smith scandal than it did on the war in Iraq or even the 2008 presidential race. It spent little to no time on the U.S. attorneys firing scandal, and not just because Fox News’ Mara Liasson called Attorney General Alberto Gonzales–who circumvented the Geneva Convention guaranteeing habeas corpus–”a good choice” for the job that Gonzales eventually lost because of corruption.

As the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy report put it back in 2003, two years before Murdoch acquired MySpace, “Those who primarily watch Fox News are significantly more likely to have misperceptions.”

But that penchant for confusion didn’t stop sociopolitical and environmental justice groups like Greenpeace, American Civil Liberties Union, Food Not Bombs and scores more from logging onto MySpace and setting up proxy sites. Some jokers even set up fake sites for Murdoch himself, which were soon pulled down by Fox Interactive. The best one still resides at Slate.com, where Murdoch’s bio ominously but correctly explains: “It’s MySpace–you just lurk in it.”

To quote the Smiths, that joke isn’t funny anymore. Especially after Facebook, the latest social networking phenomenon founded by former Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg in 2004, was found to have compromised the privacy of its members with the in-house advertising program Beacon. Launched in November 2007 in partnership with 44 participating sites–including those of Blockbuster, Sony Entertainment, Coca-Cola, Travelocity the NBA and more–Beacon was an instant controversy due to its stealth tracking of users’ behavior even after they left Facebook.

A mere two weeks after launch, MoveOn.org circulated a petition demanding Facebook keep users non-Facebook activities secret, gaining over 50,000 signees within 10 days and crippling the service and its agreements. Ironically enough, the attack on Facebook occurred on Facebook, in a group called “Facebook: Stop Invading My Privacy,” which took off like a rocket and still maintains a membership base of 75,000 members.

“We’ve made a lot of mistakes building this feature,” Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook blog after the controversy hit a crescendo, “but we’ve made even more with how we’ve handled them. We simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it. … Instead of acting quickly, we took too long to decide on the right solution. I’m not proud of the way we’ve handled this.”

The back and forth is telling: Social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook aren’t just battling actors in a war over corporate influence with Fox, Coca-Cola or Microsoft–which recently paid around $250 million for an equity stake in Zuckerberg’s phenom, now valued at $15 billion–they are the battlegrounds themselves. They host both David and Goliath. The philosopher Marshall McLuhan once famously argued the medium is the message, long before the internet was a dream in the military’s head. He had no idea how right he’d be.

And that knotted intersection of identity, internet and investment is only tightening as social networks gain major traction in the mainstream. If MySpace is the teenage meetup and Facebook is the professional party, LinkedIn is the all-biz-all-the-time straight shooter of the bunch. Not much more than online resumes for business networkers looking to land their next job, LinkedIn nevertheless recently overhauled its site and is rumored to be up for sale. Attracted investors? You guessed it: Rupert Murdoch and News Corp.. If the rumored deal goes through, Fox Interactive will not just host your songs, pictures and stories but know where you’ve worked, where you want to work in the future and, most importantly, where you live and what you like. They may end up knowing way more about you than you think, especially as their stealth trackers like Beacon and other marketing and surveillance applications virally replicate.

And if you’re looking to politicians to solve this conundrum, you might want to look elsewhere: They have been some of the biggest social networkers of the last several years. Howard Dean popularized the power of netroots–online grass-roots organizations who work in cyberspace to change the real world–after he was transformed by millions of online champions around the world from the Democrat to beat to the de facto head of the Democratic Party.

Similarly, every major and minor politician has seized upon the social networking phenomenon and built an online presence, and they join the thousands of other individuals worldwide who use social media, regardless of whether it’s for personal or professional reasons. Some users even go one step further and decide to find out here about how to grow their profile so they can have more followers to their name, which in turn could help them to become an internet sensation. Although, it is yet to be known how many major or minor politicians do something similar when they want to get their message across. And they’re inclusive to the extreme: Gen. Wesley Clark, 2004 presidential candidate and 2008 supporter of Hillary Clinton, recently maxed out his Facebook friend tally. Clinton and Barack Obama, for their parts, have embraced the trend with a quickness. Clinton has not just her own dense online site HillaryClinton.com, but a presence on Facebook, MySpace, YouTube (owned by Google) and the photo site Flickr (owned by Yahoo). Same goes for Obama, who’s outdone Hillary with a few better membership sites on BlackPlanet.com and others, as well as a mobile feed if you want to follow his whereabouts on your phone.

No, you’ll have to turn elsewhere if you want to keep corporate influence from social networking.

As the Facebook controversy proves, the best place to start is the social network itself. While it may feel imbalanced to use Murdoch to fight Murdoch or use Microsoft to fight Microsoft, it has been proven to be somewhat effective. After all, you drop a quarter or half billion dollars for something, you want that investment to at least retain if not gain value. And that doesn’t happen when your consumers are fleeing to the next social networking site, which seems to pop up with more regularity than before.

In the end, it may feel imbalanced. But the playing field is perhaps more level than ever.

(This article appeared in The Nation.)